Assembling a celebratory album of Baylor sports through history: Q&A with author Alan J. Lefever

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Alan J. Lefever is the author of "The History of Baylor Sports," a coffee table-sized tome chronicling over 100 years of the Bears' athletic endeavors. For more on the book, visit historyofbaylorsports.com.

Posted: Sunday, August 31, 2014 12:01 am

With Baylor University opening its 2014 football season today in a new, $266 million, state-of-the-art, on-campus stadium on the banks of the Brazos River, we thought it appropriate to put issues of local, state, national and global politics aside long enough to pay homage to Baylor’s remarkable and unsung athletic history. Alan J. Lefever’s coffee table-sized book, “The History of Baylor Sports,” published by Baylor University Press, amounts to what the author describes as a celebratory album of Baylor athletics over the course of more than a century. In this interview, Lefever, director of the Texas Baptist Historical Collection, discusses the heyday of Baylor sports; what quality in coaching proved most critical in Baylor’s athletic outcomes; the 1926 riot at a Baylor-A&M game that resulted in an Aggie fatality; how much credit the college football talent of Robert Griffin III rates in construction of a riverfront stadium few foresaw a couple of years ago; and Lefever’s favorite piece of Baylor sports memorabilia. For more on the book, visit www.historyofbaylorsports.com.

Q    This is a big, fat, coffee table-sized book full of vintage photos, a sweeping survey of Baylor’s century-plus athletic history and side stops devoted to particular events and personalities. I understand you were inspired to do such a book as long as three decades ago by student work you were doing with old photographs in the Texas Collection on campus.

A    When I was a sophomore I began working at the Texas Collection. My first assignment was to identify hundreds of BU football photos from the ’20s and ’30s. I learned how to assign a date to each photo by examining the way the uniforms evolved and even changes in the dress of the spectators. As I worked through this process I thought how cool it would be if these photos were put together in a book telling the history of BU sports.

Q    In the book, you cover a lot of Baylor athletic history, some of it more than a century old, obviously demanding searches of old yearbooks, newspaper microfilms, programs, magazines and oral histories. What required the greatest, most trying amount of research? Or was all this information readily accessible?

A    Constructing the history of each of Baylor’s sports before World War II was a challenge, but it was an enjoyable one. In some cases I had to work through contradictory information in order to write an accurate history. I loved working through the Board of Trustees minutes in the 1890s and especially the early Lariats. The Texas Collection and the Digital Collection from BU Libraries was invaluable to my research. All of the old Lariats and Round Ups are now available online.

Q    Given the high points in Baylor athletics the last several years, is it fair to say we’re living in the heyday of Baylor sports — or are we forgetting another remarkable period of consistent gains and strides made in so many different sports on campus?

A    It is certainly hard for us to think of any better days of Baylor athletics than the ones that we are experiencing today. But the late 1940s and early 1950s were also glory days for BU athletics. We had great success in both basketball and football during those years and would have been considered one of the strongest athletic programs in the Southwest Conference at the time.

Q    Your survey of the various coaches offered you a chance to contemplate different styles, different temperaments, different strategies, different insights into player potential. When you looked at all the various coaches, did you find a common trait or ability that made the difference between success and failure?

A    I would say that one of the remarkable things about Baylor’s history has been how many effective coaches we have hired over the years, and not just people who build winning programs but men and women who build leaders and contributors to society. The trait that I think exemplifies these successful coaches in our history has been the faith that they had in their players to perform and the confidence that they instilled in their players to achieve after their playing days were over.

Q    Football rivalries can be intense, but I didn’t know about the 1926 A&M-Baylor game that turned into a genuine brawl with one death resulting, coupled with plans for vengeance by Aggie students. And A&M fans think they’ve got problems with Texas. How did this 1926 episode erupt?

A    I believe that the rivalry between A&M and Baylor is in part a result of the fact that for many years, while A&M was a male-only school, the A&M men would travel to Waco to date Baylor women. The ’26 episode erupted because Baylor men were mocking what an A&M Homecoming Court and Queen would look like. I think if you had men come out dressed in drag today and called it another’s school’s Homecoming Court a riot might still occur. I’m sad that conference expansion ended what had been a friendly and oftentimes family rivalry between the two schools.

Q    Your book includes a nice section on The Immortal Ten, the Baylor basketball teammates killed in January 1927 when the bus they were traveling in was struck by a train. The deaths have become a tragic part of Baylor’s athletic legacy. How badly did it cripple the campus, its students and its athletic program?

A    The event definitely cast a pall over the campus that lasted for a long time. The basketball season ended immediately after the tragedy and it would take the program years to recover. As far as the school goes, even years after the tragedy the campus went into a few days of mourning as the anniversary approached. I think in many ways the event helped to galvanize what we know today as the BU spirit.

Q    Every author doing history and research into the past likes to pride himself in revealing some new fact or interpretation. Is there any such new revelation offered in this book, something people were surprised to learn, something you were surprised to learn?

A    This is an easy one. I rediscovered the athletic achievements of C.M. King, a star track athlete at Baylor in 1901-02. King went on to win two Olympic silver medals in the Standing Broad Jump and Standing Triple Jump at the St. Louis Games in 1904. In fact, for a brief moment King held the world record in both events. I was able to connect with his son recently and, as a result, have one of those Olympic medals on display at the Texas Baptist Historical Museum in Independence, the birthplace of Baylor University.

Q    I’m assuming, having been fascinated by this subject as long as you have, you sought out some of the figures and individuals who color Baylor athletics. What Baylor figure did you most enjoy meeting and talking with and why?

A    I wanted to interview so many people but time and space constraints did not allow me to interview many of the BU personalities I have come to know and appreciate over the years. I was incredibly thankful for the time both President Starr and Athletic Director Ian McCaw gave me in the early days of this project. I was also very thankful for the help various coaches provided as I was trying to identify and select photos for the book.

Q    Obviously, Baylor is very proud of its Christian heritage and culture, though one senses that may have resulted in Baylor leaders snuffing football briefly in the first part of the 20th century or the brief discouraging of athletics for women on campus. How has Baylor’s being an institution of faith and certain standards helped or hindered its success in athletics?

A    Today many people are familiar with the mission trips Baylor athletes take every summer. However, Baylor athletes have been involved in faith-based endeavors as long as BU has played sports. Jackie Robinson, the All American basketball player in the ’40s, was an integral member of the Baylor University Youth Revival movement that literally helped change the lives of thousands of young people across the U.S. I think that people who are unfamiliar with the BU culture or, for that matter, people who are unfamiliar with how faith can complement competition erroneously think that it is impossible to be a good Christian and excel athletically. The history of sports at Baylor University certainly proves that wrong.

Q    No history of achievement and success over great periods of time is accomplished without at least some turmoil. I notice the book omits some major controversies, including the scandal that destroyed basketball coach Dave Bliss’ college career and the flap more recently over Brittney Griner’s coming-out in terms of her sexuality.

A    As a historian I have written works that were objective examinations of people and events. That was not the purpose of this work. I wanted this history to be a “family album” of BU sports, a collection of pictures and words that would make the reader recall fond memories or stories from the past. I certainly did not try to hide Darryl Johnson, Dave Bliss or even the 1999 UNLV game (involving a last-second, game-changing fumble at Baylor’s expense) as I wrote this book. However, when we put a “family album” together we generally don’t spend time documenting bad times and memories.

Q    Is it accurate to say that McLane Stadium is the stadium that Robert Griffin III built — or is that oversimplifying matters?

A    Absolutely. I think there is a strong parallel between what Doug Flutie did for Boston College in the ’80s and what RG3 did for Baylor. People credited Flutie with allowing Boston College to rebuild their football stadium and rebuild their athletic program. While our athletic program was getting stronger as RG3 entered the university, he only helped make it stronger as he and BU gained nationwide prominence. I don’t see any way that we would be able to have the passion necessary to build a new stadium without his athletic contributions.

Q    Do you think Griffin will ever get into politics?

A    If he did, I’m pretty sure he would carry McLennan County in anything! I would love to see him enter politics, mainly because we are in desperate need of intelligent and well-spoken politicians.

Q    As steeped as you are in Baylor athletic history, I suppose you’ve collected Baylor memorabilia along the way. What’s your most prized possession?

A    I’ve got a lot of things one might consider prized like a Sugar Bowl Program from 1957, but I’d have to say my most prized possession is probably a framed, autographed picture of RG3 throwing a pass in the 2011 OU game along with my game ticket from that day. I attend that game almost every year with one of my dearest friends who is an OU grad and currently director of the Baptist Collegiate Ministry on the Norman campus. I knew that one day we would finally beat them, and I wanted to be standing next to him when it happened. When RG3 threw the winning touchdown, I literally cried.

Q    What’s the most remarkable display of Baylor athletics you’ve seen as a fan? And, given your insight into history, what’s one game in the more than 100 years of Baylor sports that you wish you could’ve seen?

A    Of course, the OU game that I just described is at the top of my list, but being in Denver and witnessing the first women’s basketball program ever to go 40-0 was pretty incredible. I think if I could go back in time, the game I would really like to see is the first football game that Baylor ever played, which was against Toby’s Business College on an unknown field on the edge of campus.

Q    Did you ever think you’d see a stadium on campus in your lifetime?

A    No! I never thought that we would be able to have enough excitement to start a campaign to build a new stadium or the momentum to keep it going. RG3 was the catalyst that allowed both to occur.

Q    What’s the most interesting reaction or observation you’ve received regarding the book?

A    The reaction to the book has been overwhelmingly positive. However, I have had many people come up to me asking me why I didn’t include a certain favorite story of theirs. Others have told me that they can’t wait for the sequel, although my wife is in no hurry for that one!

Interview conducted by Bill Whitaker.

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